The Mayor of Tower Hamlets has branded the Government’s decision to scrap Public Health England (PHE) during the Covid-19 pandemic as ‘irresponsible and astonishing’.
The Government’s plans, first announced in a Sunday newspaper, will see the ex-boss of the TalkTalk mobile phone company Dido Harding take control of a new agency called the ‘National Institute for Health Protection’ (NIHP). Lady Harding, a Conservative peer, currently leads the NHS Test and Trace programme.
In a letter to the Health Secretary, Mayor John Biggs and Cllr Rachel Blake express their concerns about the timing of the decision, and criticise the Government for ‘irresponsibly prioritising an agency reorganisation that will consume time, energy and money’ when resources should be put into combatting the virus.
The letter also hits out at the Government over concerns that scrapping PHE could be seen as a ‘thinly veiled attempt to shift the blame for mistakes made by the Government during the Covid-19 pandemic.’
The Mayor and Cllr Blake highlight the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME people across the country and widening health inequalities, and call on the Health Secretary to reconsider scrapping PHE and instead focus on supporting local councils to reduce health inequalities and deliver a Test and Trace system led by local health experts.
Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs said: “The Government’s decision to scrap Public Health England is mystifying, and to do so in the middle of a global pandemic makes it all the more astonishing.
“We face startling health inequalities and the Government’s focus must be on reducing these and combatting Covid-19, rather than rearranging an agency in what appears to be an attempt to shift blame for mistakes the Government has made in its handling of the pandemic.
“The Government must urgently reconsider its plans and let Public Health England get on with the job.”
Cllr Rachel Blake, Deputy Mayor & Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Wellbeing, said: “Scrapping Public Health England is simply irresponsible, made even worse by the fact that control of the new agency will be handed over to a Tory peer with limited experience and who has not delivered the ‘world-beating’ Test and Trace system we were promised.
“Local councils up and down the country play a major role in public health, and we’re left with questions about why the Government ignored pleas for a local approach to Test and Trace, and what will happen to the other hugely important public health work that PHE does.”
The full text of the letter sent to the Secretary of State for Health:
Dear Secretary of State
We were astonished to learn of the Government’s plans to scrap Public Health England (PHE), in the middle of a global pandemic, and to replace it with a new agency called the ‘National Institute for Health Protection’ (NIHP).
What’s more, at a time when the public needs as much clarity and clear communication about public health as possible, the decision to scrap PHE was first announced through a paywalled Sunday newspaper. It was also announced that Conservative peer Lady Dido Harding, currently in charge of the Test and Trace programme and former chief executive of the TalkTalk mobile phone company, would be chair of the new organisation.
The Government should be urgently working to resolve the startling health inequalities we face and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19, but instead you appear to be irresponsibly prioritising an agency reorganisation that will consume time, energy and money. While there may be a case for reviewing the arrangements as a part of a wider review of lessons learnt which would of course look at the wider range of actors and their decisions, a case has not been in any way made for this decision, at this time.
We represent one of the most diverse and deprived places in the UK, and one of the areas hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Local analysis has shown that people of South Asian ethnicity had 1.9 times the risk of being infected with coronavirus, those from Black ethnic groups had 1.6 times compared to those of White Ethnicity, and also highlighted higher levels of infection linked to deprivation. Even before the pandemic, health inequalities were widening.
Of further concern is what will happen to the other vital areas of work that PHE undertakes, for example around addiction, sexual health, obesity, and promoting vaccinations.
As you know, local authorities have a hugely important role to play in protecting and promoting public health but we feel we have been undermined by the Government. The Test and Trace programme, headed by the same Dido Harding that will run the NIHP, is simply not performing as it should and significant sums of money have been outsourced to private contractors when the money should have been given to the local health experts who know and understand the local circumstances.
We sincerely hope that scrapping PHE is not a thinly veiled attempt to shift the blame for mistakes made by the Government during the Covid-19 pandemic to PHE and its hard-working staff, as the Government has attempted to shift blame for the recent exam results fiasco.
We urge you to reconsider scrapping PHE and instead spending the time, money and effort in supporting local councils to reduce health inequalities and deliver a local Test and Trace system that actually works and delivers the kind of mass testing we need in order to protect the public.
Given the significant public interest in this matter we will be publishing this letter.
Mayor John Biggs, Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets
Cllr Rachel Blake, Deputy Mayor & Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Wellbeing